Ask any Buckeye fan—what was missing from Ohio State’s defensive line play last season?
A lack of physicality, ferocity, and intensity, is what you’d hear. And those Buckeye fans would be right.
Last season, the defense recorded 28 sacks. In 2007, those numbers were drastically different (with many of the same players), when the defense got to the quarterback 42 times.
With the departure of sack stud Vernon Gholston (14 sacks in his junior season) to the NFL, the line play was suddenly suspect at best in 2008.
Things are looking much brighter—er…nastier in Columbus this spring.
“Destroy everything moving,” Thaddeus Gibson said when asked what type of game he’d like to play this season.
Gibson was used primarily as a pass rusher in 2008, when he led the team with five sacks. This season, he wants to improve on that total and it isn’t far-fetched to think he could get to the elusive 10-sack club. Only six other Buckeyes have reached that milestone.
But Gibson knows that this season, he must also make another leap—from pass-rush specialist to every-down player.
That transition starts by learning to recognize the run, both on the field and in the film room. For Gibson, it also means learning when to be aggressive and when not to.
Gibson admitted to recently re-watching parts of the Fiesta Bowl. Though he did land some crushing hits on Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, he was also flagged twice for roughing the passer.
"The last thing you want to do is slow him down too much," Co-Defensive Coordinator Jim Heacock told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "He's got a gift and we want to allow him to do that. But you can't do it at the risk of hurting the team. So there's a fine line there. But we're trying to put him in positions to free him up a little bit more."
Making it that much easier to free up Gibson is the sudden depth up front for the Buckeyes. The defensive front lost one player, tackle Nader Abdallah, to graduation.
"We have a ton of depth," said Todd Denlinger, a senior defensive tackle. "We're just rotating right now to see who fits where, and there are a lot of guys out there running around making plays."
Joining Gibson will be fellow junior Cameron Heyward, and a mix of Todd Denlinger, Doug Worthington, and Lawrence Wilson will be the anchors.
Wilson’s season was cut short the last two seasons by injury. In 2007, he broke his leg in the first game and last season he tore his ACL seven games in. Now, he is a fifth-year senior and 2009 is his last shot.
Wilson has shown flashes of brilliance and is eager to get back on the field in the fall. Wilson said this week he is at about 70 percent in month five following his knee surgery, so no contact for spring practice, but he has an unbelievable desire to succeed.
“From a mental standpoint, it's tough to come back and make a go of it," Heacock said. "But he's prepared to go out and take it out of his mind. He has an unbelievable attitude."
For Wilson, it’s all about getting better, both physically and mentally.
"I just have to work on getting healthy and staying healthy,” Wilson said. “I think I still have what I had. I just had a few injuries. As soon as I get better, I believe I can be the player I was, and probably even better."
This spring, Heacock and co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell won’t use practices as a gauge to reveal worthy starters, those players are in place already.
"We have a pretty good idea about the talent and what they're capable of doing. With this group, we want to see a group that dominates. That's what this group is going to have to do for us to be a good defense,” Heacock said.
The defense is being counted on as a strength this season and Denlinger and Co. know what is on their shoulders.
With two linebackers and two cornerbacks headed for professional rosters, the line must step up to prevent a decline in performance.
"If we dominate up front, it's going to take a lot of pressure off the guys on the back end," Denlinger said. "Them being a young group, whether it's getting after the passer or stopping the run, everything that we can do will help out the defense that much more."
Worthington maintains utmost confidence in the lesser-tested playmakers, knowing that several upperclassmen will slide into more major roles as well.
"When you have an Austin Spitler back there, and a Andre Amos as a cornerback, I don't really think you fall off too much," he said.
"They've been guys who have been in the system for so long and they've been ready and waiting and growling and drooling to get on that field. Guys like that are going to bring up the linebacker crew and the defensive backs. They'll be prepared."
Prepared and just a little nastier.
"We definitely feel as though this year is going to be our year," Gibson said. "You see us out there in warm-ups; we're yelling that, saying we have to be the best."
"It's going to take this practice, it's going to take this day, it's going to take this film session to be the best and everybody is on the same page and that's what we're striving for."
"Just destroy everybody on the other side of the ball. That's something we want to do and something we feel we can do. Every day we go out there and work, we're trying to get that done."